A confluence of education, history and architecture

/ Thursday, September 15, 2011 /

Central High School is a weird, cultural hub of Manchester, a sort of century long confluence of education, politics, history and architecture all pooling together in the center of the city. The school, once a handful of students crammed onto the second floor of an old primary school building in the 19th century, now houses 2,400 students from 60 different countries, speaking 30 different languages, in the inner city. When approaching from the Beech street side of the school, you can sense the immediate cross-section of time via the four different types of architecture the school sports.

Central High School's Classical building.

The politically contentious Practical Arts building.

In an entertaining interview with the futurist architect, Lebbeus Woods, a great quote came from the interviewer, Geoff Manaugh of BLDG BLOG that I feel encapsulates everything about why we build schools, whether we know it or not:
"There’s also the incredibly interesting possibility that a building project, once complete, will actually change the society that built it. It’s the idea that a building – a work of architecture – could directly catalyze a transformation, so that the society that finishes building something is not the same society that set out to build it in the first place. The building changes them."
Manchester made serious efforts throughout the latter half of the 19th century to build as many schools as possible and strongly encouraged enrollment and attendance. It is also worth noting that Manchester was increasingly concerned about children skipping school in the 1800s. Where as today, many worry about their spawn getting into mischief on the streets of the city, the parents and teachers of Victorian- era Manchester were more concerned with their kids being lured into the exploitative and dangerous work of the Amoskeag Mills for a few shiny cents. The city made several pushes to open more schools and to educate kids as long as possible before many would succumb to their family's financial burdens and go to work.

View of the Old High School, Beech Street, between Lowell and Concord Streets. A three story building with mansard roof, Romanesque style arched windows with elaborate window crowns, and two side pediment porticos.

When Central was just called "Manchester High School," the iconic yellow brick building standing on the corner of Beech and Bridge was not the first iteration of Manchester's high school but is its third. The first high school building stands on Lowell St in Manchester and is currently owned by the Manchester Institute of Art (the subject of a future post) and the second iteration of the school (illustrated above) was built on the same lot as Central's current "classical building."

View of the New High School Building, Beech Street, between Lowell and Concord Streets. Also known as Manchester Central High School; and Manchester High School Classical Building. A four story building with hipped roof, dormers, an unnamed street is seen on the left. Built on the site of the Old High School.

The classical building began construction in 1895 and opened in the fall of 1897, its architecture an attractive hybrid of Second Empire and Federal styles (please correct me if I'm wrong). It showcased the latest thinking in design with three floors, a large basement with coal heating, a massive attic and copper slated roof complete with drainage pipes. The school still didn't have indoor sanitation but had running cold water. The best part of the design was something removed from the building later (quoting at length from "Sesquicentennial History: Manchester High School - Central 1846-1996" by Principal William Burns):
"At the pinnacle of the roof was an astronomical dome which had a vertical opening for the viewing of the heavens with the school's telescope. The cover could be rotated manually to follow a celestial object's path. An exterior walk surrounded the dome from which there was a fine view of the surrounding city and countryside. A square-shaped classroom was built directly beneath the dome."
I remember several years back when Bedford, NH was in a political grid lock of whether or not to build a high school, some of the parents of the town had requested an observatory or planetarium to be built within the new school. Many guffawed at such a seemingly lavish request, including myself. School- owned observatories were something for private schools with their gates, uniforms and gracious alumnae donations, but here in the late 19th century, a public school had an observatory.

Another intriguing, and maybe depressing, aspect of the Manchester High School design in contrast with latter day school construction, was the thinking that school houses needed plenty of light, large windows and good air circulation- a far cry from the stunted safety windows that inhabit more modern day school.

"There had been much concern shown about student health for many, many years. Having students cooped up in small rooms with bad lighting, uneven heat and poor ventilation coupled with little or no physical movement for hour on end created many a heated argument and fostered any number of learned dissertations about student health."

Small pox, tuberculosis and cholera had swept through the country the century before and air circulation was a reason for a lot of concern in fighting contagions. The school was built with a "maze of air ducts" and a mechanical ventilation system in the basement that replaced the entire school's air within minutes. Trucks loaded with coal would arrive weekly to feed the steam boilers in the winter, which were the cause of many burns over the years.

Group portrait of fourteen unidentified Manchester High School Teachers, ten women and four men. (1905)
With Manchester living through an economical golden era straddling the 19th and 20th century, Manchester High School's student population would continue to bloat, on a mission to make every graduate college eligible. Often times, Manchester grads would hop on trains from their respective college to visit their old high school haunt and recruit students. It wouldn't be until 1922 when Manchester High School West opened its doors across the river, that Manchester High would earn its new moniker, "Central." Alongside West's opening, Central opened a new building that would become hotly contested that same fall.

More to come.


{ jmb } on: September 16, 2011 at 7:10 AM said...

I never knew that about the planetarium, wonder what West looked like before the additions? (Pretty funny that you couldn't get away with building any public building, let alone a school, with West's facade today!)

{ Dan Brian } on: September 16, 2011 at 7:32 AM said...

Yeah, it's kind of sad. It's as if after WWII, city governments gave up taking any pride or creative license in their public structures. I'm sure a lot of people will look back on it as an era of utility over aesthetic. The whole 'downtown' vs South Willow is a perfect example of this.

{ jmb } on: September 19, 2011 at 5:35 AM said...

And not even that useful--so many of those spaces were the exact opposite of "ergonomic" or "efficient" and not terribly well built either. There's a slight, timid move back towards some sort of style, retro or futurist, in the past 10-15 years, but barely. And don't get me started about the Borg Cube monstrosity that is the new Currier exterior!

(But I also meant putting neoclassical nudes on public structures, which was definitely controversial but still happened all across America even in the Victorian era, right up to the 1930s. Try proposing that to City Hall now...)

Anonymous on: October 27, 2011 at 4:49 PM said...

Hey Dan -

Came to you by way of tonight's NHPR story, and clicked in because I also blob about a somewhat local and narrow slice of history...

But also because I came up just outside the city, went to Manchester Central, and have a good grasp of the city's history, and I'm curious about another bloggers take on things I have a familiarity with >

I'm gonna wade around a bit, and thanks for doing what you do

Post a Comment

Copyright © 2010 Manchester Oblique, All rights reserved